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article imageLiberal victory sets Estonia on course for first woman PM

By Polina KALANTAR with Mary SIBIERSKI in Warsaw (AFP)     Mar 4, 2019 in Politics

Estonia was on track Monday for its first woman prime minister after the opposition liberal Reform party won a general election, outpacing the governing centre-left and a surging far-right party drawing on support from hurting rural voters.

Reform leader Kaja Kallas, a 41-year-old lawyer and former MEP, wooed voters in the Baltic state of 1.3 million with business-friendly promises of cutting taxes and unemployment insurance premiums to aid job creation.

Bread-and-butter issues like taxation and public spending dominated Sunday's election in the ex-Soviet EU and NATO state, along with tensions over Russian-language education for the sizeable Russian minority and the rural-urban divide.

Reform garnered 28.8 percent of the vote, ahead of the governing centre-left Centre party with 23 percent, while the far-right EKRE more than doubled its previous election score with 17.8 percent, according to full results on Estonia's official election website.

Turnout was just over 63 percent.

- 'Common sense' -

An ardent europhile, Kallas is the daughter of former Estonian prime minister Siim Kallas, who also led the Reform party before serving as a European transport commissioner.

Should she succeed in forging a viable coalition, Kallas will govern in tandem with President Kersti Kaljulaid, Estonia's first woman head of state who took office in 2016.

Vowing to run the "country with common sense", Kallas said Reform would "seek common ground" for possible coalitions with three of the four other parties that entered parliament, while ruling out EKRE as "not a choice for us".

Result and voter turnout in Estonia's 2019 general election
Result and voter turnout in Estonia's 2019 general election
Sophie RAMIS, AFP

She said Reform has "strong differences" with the Centre party of outgoing Prime Minister Juri Ratas in three areas: taxation, citizenship and education.

Asked if his party would consider becoming a junior coalition partner, Ratas said "of course".

With a combined 60 seats in the 101-seat parliament, the two could govern together as they have done in the past.

- Rivals or partners? -

Centre and Reform have alternated in government over the nearly three decades since Estonia broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union.

Both strongly support Estonia's EU and NATO membership, which they see as a buffer against Soviet-era master Russia.

They have favoured austerity to keep spending in check, giving the country the eurozone's lowest debt-to-GDP ratio.

Bread-and-butter issues like taxation and public spending dominated the campaign  along with tension...
Bread-and-butter issues like taxation and public spending dominated the campaign, along with tensions over Russian-language education for Estonia's sizeable Russian minority and the rural-urban divide
Raigo PAJULA, AFP

Joblessness hovers at just under five percent while economic growth is expected to slow to 2.7 percent this year from 3.9 percent in 2018.

Rather than join up with Centre, Kallas could woo two other parties which currently govern in a coalition with Ratas -- the Social Democrats and the conservative Isamaa -- for a 56-seat majority.

While it won just seven seats in the 2015 election, EKRE is now a close third behind the mainstream parties after capturing support on promises of slashing income and excise taxes and pushing anti-immigration rhetoric.

The party has no obvious coalition prospects.

Experts say its appeal is largely rooted in the misgivings of rural Estonians who feel left behind after years of austerity under Centre and Reform.

- 'Very ambiguous' -

Staunchly eurosceptic EKRE leader Mart Helme insisted on Monday that the party would call for an "Estxit" referendum "if the EU starts moving in the direction of federalising".

The move would fail in the overwhelmingly pro-EU country.

Its suspicion of Moscow translates into strong support for NATO membership and the multinational battalion the alliance installed in Estonia in 2017 as a tripwire against possible Russian adventurism.

The Centre party has long been favoured by Estonia's Russian minority, which comprises around a quarter of the population.

The minority had counted on Centre to save the existing education system which incorporates Estonian and Russian-language schools rooted in Soviet times, while Reform and EKRE want to scrap Russian-language teaching.

Under the constitution, Premier Ratas must resign at the first sitting of the new parliament, which takes places within 10 days of the election. President Kaljulaid then has 14 days to name a candidate for prime minister.

Expected to get the nod, Kallas will have two weeks to forge a coalition able to secure a majority in parliament.

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